Selected Reviews

Symbols, strokes and sounds: Thomas Parker Williams
Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2004 - by Stephanie Frank Singer
Entropic Zones: Buildings and Structures of the Contemporary City New Art Examiner, October 1995 by Jude Schwendenwien
The Relentless March of Industrial Decay New York Times, March 5, 1995 by Vivien Raynor
The Seductive Power of Guns Philadelphia Weekly March 31, 1993 by Andrew Mangravite

Symbols, strokes and sounds: Thomas Parker Williams
Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2004 - by Stephanie Frank Singer - Copyright Stephanie Frank Singer, 2004

Elsa Schiaparelli, Seward Johnson, the Swingle Singers, Richard Estes. One thing these artists have in common is dedication to ideas that could be accused of gimmickry.

While clever ideas can lead to great art, they can also stumble. Sometimes the difference is in the eye of the beholder - or the ear. Can "Flight of the Bumblebee" on double bass be high art? How about Bach's "Chaconne" played by an orchestra of 20 cellos? Or Seward Johnson's three-dimensional, super-sized versions of famous impressionist paintings?

Many artists do transcend the cleverness of their idea. Picasso's cubist works contain much more than the gimmick of a sideways nose that allows him to portray the full face and the profile simultaneously. In Schiaparelli's surreal gowns, the play of ideas and the elegance of the cuts work together, not just side by side. But how does an idea progress from gimmick to transcendence? One can glimpse the process in the work of local artist Thomas Parker Williams, whose new exhibit, Garden, is on display at the Matthew Izzo Gallery, 928 Pine Street in Philadelphia.

Williams, a longtime resident of Manayunk, met me on a bitter January evening (remember those?) at the gallery. His full gray hair, sharp nose, appealing smile and deep wrinkles complemented the twinkle in his eye as he talked about his methods and influences. Occasionally his words were accented by a delightful quick upward motion of his eyebrows.

Williams is both a musician and a visual artist. As a child he studied clarinet in the classical tradition. Then he picked up the saxophone and taught himself to improvise by listening and playing along with records. But eventually he stopped playing altogether, as his interest in painting grew. Without any formal training in the visual arts, he created and exhibited many works.

About five years ago, after reading James Glieck's Chaos, Williams started to think about process-based art. In other words, instead of trying to portray a particular visual scene (product-based art) he wanted to set up a process for creating art without trying to predict or constrain the outcome. He started with mathematics, basing works on the geometric spiral and chaos theory. Then serialism in music caught his attention. Serialism is composition based on a sequence of 12 tones, practiced by Schoenberg and others, a musical example of process-based art.

To capture serialism visually, Williams assigned different symbols and attributes to pitch. He used polygons: one pitch would be a circle, another a triangle, and so on. He painted these on plexiglass. His earlier works were literal transcriptions of the music. Then, at the suggestion of a New York dealer who said, "People will want to hear this [the art]," he dusted off his saxophone, bought a digital 8-track recorder and mastering deck, and started to experiment. That was in 2001. Says Williams, "The music took me places I wouldn't normally get to."

The music took him to his Electronic Composition series. He recorded his own improvisations, layering piano and saxophone parts on his 8-track. Then he painted in response to the music. Strong dark verticals represent the rhythm; piano notes appear as blue forms and saxophone notes as copper circles. Paint on both sides of the clear plexiglass gives these works depth in the third dimension. This colorful series was completed last summer.

Williams' latest show, Garden, at the Matthew Izzo Gallery, is inspired by Ryoanji, a famous Zen rock garden in Kyoto, Japan. The area of this garden is about 900 hundred times that of the little sand-and-rock gardens that adorn some American coffee tables. The garden has 15 large stones resting on a neatly raked bed of small white pebbles.

To create the music that the garden inspired, Williams had to expand his range of skills. He plays percussion, recorders and bamboo flute as well as saxophone on his recording, which contains a separate movement for each of the 15 stones, and music for entry and exit. The improvisations are free and unhurried, evoking calm as well as movement.

When the recording was finished, Williams created an artist book, a paper sculpture really, with ideograms representing the stones inked onto ridged, off-white paper, enfolded by hand-cut, leafy green pages and enclosed in a dark-green envelope held by a wide black band.

Then he started to paint, listening to his own improvisations for inspiration. The result is a transcendent evocation of music on plexiglass. The piece I saw had dispensed with the literal translation of notes, yet the music was still there. The rhythm pulsed in the background strokes, reminding the viewer of the raked pebbles of the garden. The foreground melody, in swift dark calligraphic strokes, evoked the stones and Japan itself, or at least a Westerner's romantic image of Japan. Magically, both the Zen garden and the music are present in the abstract images. Williams' process brought him not to a gimmicky representation of music in a visual format, but to an unforced, moving, beautiful piece of art.

The exhibit, comprising the music, the book and one painting for each of the 15 stones of the garden, will be on view from March 26 to May 7.

Stephanie Frank Singer is a professional mathematician and an amateur musician. She is author of Symmetry in Mechanics a Gentle Modern Introduction and is currently writing a book on the mathematics behind the hydrogen atom and the periodic table.

Symbols, strokes and sounds: Thomas Parker Williams
Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2004 - by Stephanie Frank Singer
Entropic Zones: Buildings and Structures of the Contemporary City New Art Examiner, October 1995 by Jude Schwendenwien
The Relentless March of Industrial Decay New York Times, March 5, 1995 by Vivien Raynor
The Seductive Power of Guns Philadelphia Weekly March 31, 1993 by Andrew Mangravite

New Art Examiner Review

Symbols, strokes and sounds: Thomas Parker Williams
Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2004 - by Stephanie Frank Singer
Entropic Zones: Buildings and Structures of the Contemporary City New Art Examiner, October 1995 by Jude Schwendenwien
The Relentless March of Industrial Decay New York Times, March 5, 1995 by Vivien Raynor
The Seductive Power of Guns Philadelphia Weekly March 31, 1993 by Andrew Mangravite

New York Times Review

New York Times Review

Symbols, strokes and sounds: Thomas Parker Williams
Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2004 - by Stephanie Frank Singer
Entropic Zones: Buildings and Structures of the Contemporary City New Art Examiner, October 1995 by Jude Schwendenwien
The Relentless March of Industrial Decay New York Times, March 5, 1995 by Vivien Raynor
The Seductive Power of Guns Philadelphia Weekly March 31, 1993 by Andrew Mangravite

Philadelphia Weekly Review

Symbols, strokes and sounds: Thomas Parker Williams
Philadelphia Music Makers, Spring 2004 - by Stephanie Frank Singer
Entropic Zones: Buildings and Structures of the Contemporary City New Art Examiner, October 1995 by Jude Schwendenwien
The Relentless March of Industrial Decay New York Times, March 5, 1995 by Vivien Raynor
The Seductive Power of Guns Philadelphia Weekly March 31, 1993 by Andrew Mangravite